Pac-12 Baseball Pulse: March 18
Pac-12 play is under way, and Oregon State answered a lot of questions about its legitimacy with an emphatic performance in Tucson. At least one team outside of the league's group of preseason favorites established itself as a dangerous force in the conference race, too. Here's the rundown:
We highlighted Arizona's tireless offense during its preparations for the Oregon State machine last week, and it turns out that the new-look Wildcats were not up for the test yet. The Beavers waltzed into Hi Corbett Field and swept Arizona away. Missed chances to the tune of 22 stranded runners doomed the defending national champions' lineup, which features five fresh starters.
The Pacific Northwest's Operation Desert Storm continued in Tempe, where Arizona State dropped a series to Washington State for the first time in school history. The Cougars lit up Sun Devils ace Trevor Williams to kick off Friday's Fireworks Night festivities before punishing ASU for six error-aided runs in the fourth inning of Sunday's rubber match to secure the series. "They kicked the tail out of us in every phase of the game," Forks coach Tim Esmay bemoaned.
The starting pitching is still a question mark, but the Bears' win streak reached eight games with a sweep at Utah. Oh, and the leg blood clot that cost Devon Rodriguez his 2012 season hasn't taken away his stud status: the senior's .372 average and .946 OPS both include Sunday's game-winning hit.
Oregon came from behind to win twice in Los Angeles, but wasn't able to complete the trifecta against USC Sunday, losing 5-3. Still, that's a series victory to open Pac-12 play for George Horton's squad, which is again playing effective small ball. The Ducks lead the conference with 27 successful sacrifices.
Speaking of finishing sweeps, the Beavers did it the right way: in the backyard of the defending College World Series champions. Jake Rodriguez drove in five runs Sunday and Michael Conforto's fifth and sixth home runs of the year provided the weekend-long sizzle. Fifteen jacks are well within reach for the sophomore, while 20 on the season aren't out of the question, either. At 19-1 after that remarkable performance, Oregon State is your early Pac-12 frontrunner.
Stanford was idle, as usual, in the lead-up to final exams on The Farm. The Cardinal, though, is using the break to lick its wounds after a brutal home sweep at the hands of UNLV. Last year, Mark Marquess' club entered this break sizzling offensively. This season, a bevy of veteran departures has taken its toll: the team is hitting only a combined .244.
The fog does frequently roll in from the Pacific to flood Los Angeles at night, but it's rarely thick enough to suspend a baseball game. That happened on Friday to open UCLA's series against Washington. Saturday's continuation went 15 innings before seeing a 3-2 Bruins win. The Baby Blue turned around to bust out the brooms. They shut the Dawgs out twice in a row to slam the door.
USC exhaled a large sigh of relief after it held off Oregon to salvage its conference-opening series. That win snapped a five-game losing streak that has seen the team plunge back into mediocrity after a decent start. It all began when the pitching imploded two weeks ago at Fresno State. A two-week midweek tilt at Louisville followed by a three-game series at soft-hitting Washington is the Trojans' next chance to rebound.
A home sweep at the hands of California certainly wasn't an auspicious Pac-12 start, but the Utes are pitching much better than last year. The staff's 3.75 certainly is respectable. The problem is Utah's defense, which has replaced Cal's as the league's worst. Bill Kinneberg's squad has committed 30 errors in just 19 games. That's good for a brutal .955 fielding percentage.
Statistically, it's shaping up to be a nightmare season for Washington. The team's slugging percentage has already dipped under .300 (.295), and that .301 on-base percentage may follow suit as at-bats against tough Pac-12 pitching pile up. The pitching (4.31 ERA) is also near the conference cellar. The Huskies scored only two runs in 33 innings of action at UCLA this past weekend.
The two Washington schools certainly have nothing in common when it comes to offensive production and - so far - performance on a Pac-12 baseball field. Whereas the Huskies' .237 team average is good for the conference cellar, Washington's State's .320 mark leads the Pac-12. The Cougars' 14 home runs lead the league and provide much of the power that has overcome a struggling 4.35 ERA. After taking two of three at Arizona State for the first time in school history, Donnie Marbut's squad has established itself as a force to be reckoned with.
David Lombardi has covered Pac-12 baseball since 2007. He is Stanford baseball’s radio play-by-play voice and can be found on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.